Revelation 4 contains symbolic images describing the setting of the 'throne' of God. This 'throne' is not set with its back to a wall, but is in the middle, in the centre of not only ‘heaven’ as this chapter reveals but also of the whole universe, as chapter 5 teaches.  We are told a number of things about it:

A rainbow resembling an emerald encircled it
The rainbow is part of the glorious radiance emanating from God and his throne [compare Ezekiel 1:27,28]. The rainbow indicates the everlasting covenant faithfulness of God: that in the midst of judgement there is grace and salvation [Genesis 9:12-17]. Those who believe in Christ have Christ’s promise that they are safe in his hands and have already escaped the condemnation. This rainbow encircling the throne of God, assures them that they are safe from the storm of judgment that must fall.

Twenty-four elders on twenty-four thrones
The throne of God is surrounded [the word means encircled] by twenty-four other thrones on which are seated twenty-four elders [4:4], who are constantly worshipping God and laying their crowns before him [4:9-11]. These elders, in some way representing the redeemed, are constantly drawing attention to the worthiness of God, the Creator. They exalt the one who is sitting on the throne.

Lightning and thunder
Historically lightning and thunder accompanied the presence of God, warning of his holiness, his inapproachability and his judgment on sinners [see Exodus 19:16-22; 20:18-21; Psalm 77:18; 97:1-4; Isaiah 29:6; Ezekiel 1:13-14].

Seven lamps were blazing
Verse 5 gives its own interpretation: the seven blazing lamps are ‘the seven spirits of God’[see 1:4, 3:1].  The use of the number ‘seven’ draws attention to the perfection of the Holy Spirit. The connection of the Holy Spirit with judgment is obvious in John 16:7-11; the thought of God’s necessary judgment is certainly present in these ‘seven blazing lamps’ representing the Holy Spirit. The word translated ‘blazing’ means ‘set on fire’, and includes the thought of ‘consuming’ [fire is a biblical symbol of judgement]. It is highly possible that this is a reference to the utter holiness of God by which all that is opposed to him is consumed [read Deuteronomy 4:24; 9:3; Isaiah 4:4; Jeremiah 21:12; Hebrews 12:28,29].

What looked like a sea of glass, clear as crystal
This sea most likely represents the utter purity and holiness of God that prevents sinners from approaching him. No sinner can enter his presence. This view is supported by the presence of the ‘laver’ in the Old Testament Tabernacle and Temple. This was sometimes called the ‘Sea’. Its presence there indicated the need for cleansing, even of the priests.  Note that in the 'new heavens and the new earth' there is 'no longer any sea' [Revelation 21:1] – no longer anything preventing human access to God.

Four living creatures
These powerful graphic visual symbols depict the utter holiness and inapproachability of God. With biblical precedents in the cherubim in Eden in Genesis 3:24, on both the Tabernacle and Temple curtains, and on the Ark of the Covenant, and in the seraphim who extolled the holiness of God in Isaiah's vision [Isaiah 6], they are continually praising God day and night, continually affirming God's holiness and prohibiting human access to God.

Almost everything in this vision speaks about the impossibility of humans ever gaining access to God and about the inescapability of the judgement. It is a frightening vision. However two elements of this vision speak of God's grace and salvation: the rainbow encircling the throne and the twenty-four elders seated on thrones surrounding the throne. These twenty-four representative elders have somehow got past all the prohibiting, excluding barriers. There they are, in the presence of God, beyond the prohibitions, beyond the judgement.

© Rosemary Bardsley 2015